A unique, blind, subterranean, predatory ant has been discovered in the Amazon rainforest.
On first sight, legend of evolutionary biology and ant expert Edward O Wilson of Harvard University quipped that it was so unusual that it must have come from Mars. Unfortunately, the specimens dried up and crumbled before they could be formally described.
Now a single specimen of the ant has been rediscovered near Manaus in the Brazilian rainforest, by Christian Rabeling of the University of Texas, Austin.
Remembering Wilson's joke, he named the ant Martialis heureka, meaning "ant from Mars, I found it!".
Adapted for life in the soil, the eyeless ant is 2 to 3 millimeters long, pale in colour, and has large mouthparts that appear specialised to feast on soft-bodied prey like insect larvae or worms. This combination of characteristics has never been recorded before, so the ant has been put in its own new subfamily – the first new subfamily of ants with living species discovered since 1923.
"It represents an old lineage of ants that appeared very early in ant evolution," says Rabeling's colleague Manfred Verhaagh of the Federal Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany.
"This shows that tropical soils are widely unexplored and may not only harbour many undiscovered species, but among them also relict species that keep traits from early evolutionary times."